Keegan to fight on despite anticlimax
A tidal wave of disappointment, which has been gathering momentum for the past 10 weeks, rolled down the Tyne last night. In its wake lay Newcastle's championship hopes, wrecked by their own self-destructive urges as much as by Manchester United's springtime surge or Tottenham Hotspur's steadfast defences.
Despite a spirited late rally that would have conjured an 18th home victory if shots by Lee Clark and David Ginola had not struck the crossbar, the flood of goals never materialised and in any case, the ripples from the Tees carried only grim tidings. A season which promised so much thus ended in desperate anticlimax for Newcastle, which all the talk of the club's highest position since the title campaign of 1926-27 could not assuage.
The fear for the grieving Magpies, whose replica shirts made them resemble a giant bar-code surrounding St James' Park, was that Kevin Keegan might decide that if he could not win the Premiership after a transfer outlay of pounds 45m, then he was never likely to do it.
The Newcastle manager revealed himself to be an emotional man during the run-in, yet he was calmness personified after the match as he responded to media speculation that he was about to take his ball away.
"It's absolute garbage," Keegan said. "I'll still be here next season. Of course, it's disappointing but there are a lot of pluses to the season, the biggest being our supporters. We're still trying to build a team as good as them. We're very close now.
"In the meantime, our congratulations go to Manchester United. Everyone talks about our collapse, but that doesn't really do credit to them. They've got a young team, with a few old heads, and you can't take it away from them.
"If people say I made mistakes, I did - but I made them for the right reasons. People have enjoyed watching us play. With the benefit of hindsight, I might have changed some things. But I've bought some wonderful characters, some great players from abroad, and now we've got the close season to integrate them and have another go. There might not be as much money to spend - the chairman says the pen is drying up - but we'll still be playing the same way, scoring goals and letting them in."
Within the second half of that equation lies an uncomfortable truth about Newcastle. Defensively, they are not among the Premiership's better organised units, a fact that has been ruthlessly exposed in a succession of recent away games. For that reason, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that Newcastle threw the championship away. They led the table from August until the last week in March, although cracks were already appearing before then.
Spending millions on Faustino Aprilla, not long after Newcastle had opened up a 12-point advantage, is inevitably seen by many Newcastle fans as a watershed. The balance of a side, whereby two natural wingers were supplying the ammunition for Les Ferdinand, was altered overnight to accommodate the maverick Colombian.
Keegan was having little truck with that one either. "If they blame him for what happened here, or David Batty who came around the same time, it would be an absolute travesty. Asprilla was absolutely brilliant when he came on in the final half-hour today."
By then it was far too late. The faithful had arrived hoping for the best, which would have involved an almighty favour from Middlesbrough, but expecting the worst. "It's not over yet," the Tannoy announcer roared shortly before kick-off, having first stoked the fires of indignation by suggesting that Alex Ferguson's recent mind games ought to earn him an FA disrepute charge.
The fervour fizzled out after 15 minutes, when word filtered through of David May's goal at the Riverside. Following a moment's silence as the implications sank in, around 36,000 people emitted a low groan, the mood transmitted itself to a team already betraying signs of weariness in their third match in seven days, and for long spells the visitors looked the sharper side.
Spurs, with the incentive of a possible Uefa Cup berth, defended resolutely with Sol Campbell and Gary Mabbutt outstanding, while breaking quickly and in numbers. They could have had a penalty as early as the second minute, when Batty tripped David Howells, and missed a good chance 60 seconds later as Mabbutt sent a free header over the bar.
Newcastle played a longer game than usual, which allowed their wingers little scope, and it was telling that Batty, with two long-range efforts which brought the best from Ian Walker, looked their likeliest scorer.
When a goal finally arrived, shortly before the hour, it went to Spurs. Jason Dozzell was allowed time and space in which to curl a low shot beyond the diving Shaka Hislop.
Enter Asprilla, seemingly intent on proving a point. With 19 minutes remaining he wriggled along the byline before cutting the ball back into the six-yard area. Les Ferdinand, for whom goals have come less easily since he scored 14 in the first 11 games, side-footed only his fourth in the final 12 matches.
At least Newcastle's season did not finish in a second home defeat. After nine months of performances that were positive to a fault, it was no more than they deserved.
Goals: Dozzell (57) 0-1; Ferdinand (71) 1-1.
Newcastle United (4-4-1-1): Hislop; Watson, Peacock, Albert, Elliott; Gillespie (Clark, 67), Lee, Batty, Ginola; Beardsley (Asprilla, 67); Ferdinand. Substitute not used: Barton.
Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2): Walker; Wilson, Campbell (Calderwood, 67), Mabbutt, Edinburgh; Anderton, Dozzell, Howells, Fox (Rosenthal, 84); Armstrong, Sheringham. Substitute not used: Day (gk).
Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).
Booking: Newcastle Albert.
Man of the match: Mabbutt.
Attendance: 36, 589.
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